Debating Private School Vouchers and National School Choice Week

The English language has a magnificent tradition of doublespeak. Where in the 1980s, “peacekeeping devices” (bombs) were sufficient to stave off war, today we respond to attacks with “pain compliance techniques” (torture). A generation that endured the most severe economic conditions in nearly a century has come to know mass layoffs as “rightsizing.” And how did “No Child Left Behind” turn out?

January 25–31 is “National School Choice Week,” a rhetorical gem to which George Orwell himself would tip his hat. This annual event presents private school voucher proponents with the opportunity to tout the supposed benefits of “school choice,” a-downright-friendly-sounding moniker that ostensibly clusters public school choice like charter and magnet schools into its privatization agenda. But the public school options are mere window dressing. Pull back the curtain and you see that the real focus of this event is a push for private school vouchers, a scheme designed exclusively to funnel public funds to private and for-profit schools without regard for educational equity or quality.

First, private school vouchers do not provide students and parents with real and meaningful choice. Under private school voucher schemes, the ultimate choice rests with the school, not with the students and their families. Voucher programs usually allow participating private schools to reject students based on numerous factors, including economic status, gender, religion, academic achievement, sexual orientation, and even disability. Public schools, on the other hand, are required to accept all students.

Some students have even less choice than others. Students with disabilities often aren’t guaranteed the same services in the voucher school that they would ordinarily receive in a public school and can find few voucher schools that offer them the services they need. That is likely why they number only 1.6 percent of the city’s voucher school students, although students with disabilities comprise almost 20 percent of the Milwaukee public school population. And, students who want to attend a secular school are also left with few options, as the vast majority of schools that accept vouchers are religious schools.

Second, voucher programs don’t provide students and families with quality options. Studies consistently show that private school vouchers don’t improve reading and math achievement.   For example, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—the country’s oldest voucher program—a recent study shows that the students in the voucher program do no better in reading or math than their peers in public schools. Similarly in Louisiana, 67 percent of public school students pass their standardized tests, whereas only 44 percent of voucher students do.

Unfortunately, parents often don’t know and can’t discover these problems in voucher schools. Without oversight, access to records and test scores, or public meetings—all hallmarks of public education—parents are often denied the pertinent information required to make a good choice.

Nonetheless, states continue to create and expand voucher programs. There are currently private school voucher and tuition tax credit (backdoor voucher) programs in 23 states. And as states begin their 2015 legislative sessions, we are already seeing the introduction of numerous voucher bills.

Congress will likely debate private school vouchers too, as it attempts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In fact, the Senate bill already includes a scheme called “Title I Portability”—a clever name, but not quite clever enough to steal the crown from DC’s “Opportunity Scholarships”—which proposes that Title I funds should follow the student from school to school.

First, Title I funding was designed to promote equity. Funds are directed to schools with high concentrations of poverty, allowing schools to pool funds to mitigate the compounded effects of poverty. Portability would dismantle Title I and crush the ESEA’s equity agenda. To be clear, the current proposal limits the portability of funds just to public schools. But there is no masking the agenda: Clear the first hurdle by getting Title I funds assigned to the student instead of the school, then expanding choice to private school vouchers becomes a much easier—and more lucrative—endeavor.

During this National School Choice Week, it is important to remember that private school vouchers are not true school choice, and they do not offer any real benefit to the children most in need of better educational opportunities. That’s why voters in several states have voted down vouchers at the ballot box. Take the time to let your legislators know that you don’t support private school vouchers and that they should oppose any attempt to create or expand private school voucher programs, including Title I portability.

So during National School Choice Week, we do indeed have a choice: Use the NASSP Principal’s Legislative Action Center to alert your members of Congress that Title I must remain intact to preserve the equity goal inherent in ESEA. Otherwise, we could soon see schools with the greatest need suffering under conditions that are, well, “less than optimal.”

1 Comment

  • Rob says:

    Give me Free School Choice or give me Death !! There are fanatics in all opposing human endeavors and thought, and then there are the “facts – nothing but the facts.” So what are the “facts” about the overriding success of public schoolers over school choicers, or vice versa ? All depends on the fact checkers and gatherers – and their bias and/or agendas – of course. It is somewhat clear (never genuinely clear) where Amanda Karhuse’s agenda and bias are rooted – with the educational establishment. That is not a terse or harsh assessment. I guess we could just say it’s a casual, though understandable, observation.
    So it is not a question of the “facts” given but about the long standing, elusive “truth” on the matter, and as we have heard, “the truth is in the eye of the beholder.” Choose your truth and propagate it !

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